Thursday, January 06, 2011

Why Wikileaks Is Not the Pentagon Papers

Vanity Fair has some of the information I've been looking for on Julian Assange's interactions with the media. I think their characterization of him as an "information anarchist" captures some of it. I might add "information nerd."

I recognize that Daniel Ellsberg has compared Julian Assange to himself. But I would differ with his assessment for one simple reason: Ellsberg knew his material and what it meant; he had helped to develop it. His was an act of conscience. It's not clear what Assange's purpose is. From reading what he's written that's available on the internet, it's more an act of principle, out of a theory that all hidden government actions are bad. That's very different, and much more like what the Republicans and Tea Partiers are spouting about the government. What Ellsberg thought was wrong was going to war and continuing that war under false pretenses. What Assange thinks is wrong is less than total transparency on the part of the government.

There is another way in which the Wikileaks materials differ from the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers were a coherent whole, containing their own analysis of material from the field. The Wikileaks materials are the raw material, and not by any means all of it. We don't know how much this represents. Did the provider of the material select the juiciest cables to hand over to Wikileaks? And certainly Assange is controlling how the materials are released.

Each cable represents a summary of some people's attitudes at a particular place and time, filtered through another person's evaluation. Each cable is one piece in a larger picture.

Vanity Fair reports that Assange was irritated that his earlier "scoops" didn't get enough attention and therefore went to major news organizations. It's not clear whether his concern relates to what he believes to be the importance of the materials he's releasing or to his desire for publicity. He has been playing the latter to some degree. And it's possible that his evaluation of the materials' importance is not the same as other people's. Most of what has come out so far has been more gossipy than substantive.

To take a metaphor within the world Assange comes from, it's as though someone dumped a great load of 1's and 0's on your computer screen. Someone with the computer smarts and a lot of time can figure out whether they are useful or not, but their significance is not obvious. And that's why I call him an "information nerd." He would like to believe that the material speaks for itself, but it doesn't.

Henry at Crooked Timber has some thoughts on further nerdish naivety on Assange's part.

Update: A nice example of the multiple problems in dealing with the raw cables.

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